Stat-spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data, by Joel Best

This sounds like a deadly dull, impossible-to-understand book, and when my stat-spottingcolleague at the library’s circulation desk checked it out to me, she commented, “That doesn’t look like the sort of book you usually read.” However, it’s fascinating and surprisingly easy reading.

I’d usually automatically accepted statistics reported in the media, but I’ll never be quite so gullible again. The author, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware and author of such books as Damned Lies and Statistics and Flavor of the Month:  Why Smart People Fall for Fads, explains why statistics are often misleading. For example, in 1998, statistics on the numbers of overweight Americans suddenly increased. How could this be? The answer is that the federal government had redefined the term “overweight,” and the statistic did not reflect a single person’s gaining a single pound. Statistics on the number of birds who die each year by flying into windows—or by being eaten by cats—are alarming, but how can anyone really come up with a reasonable estimate on something like this? A simple error in arithmetic, such as misplacing a decimal point, can result in an incorrect statistic. In another example, the New York Times wrote that 51 percent of women are living without spouses. This may be technically accurate, but it is misleading, as teenagers as young as 15 were counted, and we would not expect many of them to be married. Also, the statistic includes women who are temporarily living alone, such as those whose husbands are in the military. These are just a few types of misleading statistics—and the media often take them at face value, making no effort to verify them.

If you’re interested in evaluating the news, you’ll want to read this book!

(Helen Snow, Information Services)

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